This visually stunning, five-sided textile represents a distinctive style of weaving practiced throughout the Pacific Northwest, notably by the Tsimshian, the Haida, and the Tlingit tribe of the Chilkat. The word naaxiin is Tlingit for “fringe about the body” and aptly describes the dual purpose of this complex piece. Tied at the neck, it drapes cloak-like across the shoulders and down the wearer’s back. Functioning both as a ceremonial blanket and also as a dance robe, the fringe and pattern become animated by a dancer’s movements.
Experts believe this to be a relatively early piece dating to the mid to late 1800s. The actual maker is unknown, but naaxiin historically have been hand woven solely by women and could take up to two years to complete. Dimensionality comes from adding outlines with a braiding technique. While white is the natural color of the mountain goat wool used, the other hues are achieved by steeping natural pigments in varying concentrations of urine. Black comes from hemlock bark, yellow from a tree lichen, and the blue-green from an oxide of copper over dyed with tree lichen.
The colors on this piece were originally quite vivid but have faded considerably with time and exposure to light. Helping this piece retain its shape are the hidden vertical warps, which are strips of cedar bark wrapped in goat wool. They are interwoven with the horizontal wefts of double-twined goat wool.
A naaxiin depicts fragmented, almost abstract shapes, typically of a creature significant to a family’s clan or heritage. This particular naaxiin features a diving whale. A handful of Native artists have revived the centuries-old tradition of the Chilkat dance robe and are weaving contemporary naaxiin today.